Saturday, July 27, 2013

Guest post with Eric Diehl

I Did Not (gasp!) Outline My Novel...


When I decided to jump into the deep end with no flotation device, the question was; how to begin? While my writing had, in the past, generated respectable feedback, said writing had been mostly technical and was directed to a limited audience. And so I thought to follow conventional wisdom; once I had committed to creating a full-blown novel my plan was to create a plot outline, and work from that. I had a theme in mind; a serious rivalry over a limited natural resource such as water, and considering that we experience that even here on a planet with a bounteous supply, that should have made for a believable enough theme. And yes, I do admit to being influenced by Frank Herbert’s ‘Dune’, though there are few similarities. My intention at the outset was to write a work of ‘hard’ science fiction, but one not devoid of character, as some works of that genre sometimes strike me.

Armed with that noble intent I set forth to fully outline my plot, and I sat down at my keyboard with grand purpose and a glint of determination in my eye.

And then, well... nothing much happened.

I could not seem to jump-start myself, and though the wheels were turning, they were spinning in place. I could get no traction. With frustration mounting I finally decided that I would take a scene that I had in mind and just get started writing.

Damn the roadmaps!

It was not quite so rash a move as it might sound, because I knew from long experience that I tend to think more effectively when I’m actually writing. On more than one occasion (in the world of Information Technology), I would sit down to compose a question of a technical nature, and in the process of assembling all the relevant data into a cogent whole, there I would go and answer the question! Fiction is obviously a different beast than is any technical specification, but still; perhaps the act of writing might kick-start my thought process?

And so it did, though not at all as I had expected.

Every day I would start by rereading the prior days work and tweaking it here and there, to get the gears re-engaged, and then I would launch into the new day’s work. Not surprisingly, some days would go better 
than others. At day’s end I’d walk a few miles, to clear the cobwebs and keep the blood flowing, and in the process work out what the next scene might be and sometimes looking farther ahead to consider major turns of plot. In some ways that made it more fun, because I would be delighted when some new character would arrive unannounced to add his or her flavoring to the mix. The turns my novel would take surprised me more than once, and occasionally it was more like reading a book as opposed to writing one. My unstructured approach is likely a primary reason that Water Harvest transformed itself from a work of hard SciFi to a science fiction fantasy, with some of the happenings therein believable by the standards of science, and others dependent upon suspension of disbelief through ‘plausible’ sorcery and dimensional bending.

After I’d finished the first draft I realized that I’d committed many of the sins common to new practitioners of fiction. ‘Purple prose’ ran rampant, my point of view hopped around like a room full of tree frogs, and I had serious stretches of ‘back-story’ where I was ‘telling’ rather than ‘showing’. In learning more about those issues by reading established author’s accounts of their own writing techniques, I was interested to find many of them also dismissing the practice of outlining. Stephen King comes to mind (though I believe I do recall him describing how he’d become lost for a time towards the end of ‘The Stand’, and that’s a novel that had me seriously hooked before leaving me dissatisfied with the final plot developments). Hmmm. I also remember a novelist whose name I recognized but have since forgotten, who said he would outline a novel, sit down and write it start to finish, and be done with it! No editing!

I cannot see the latter technique ever working for me, and probably not for most authors, but I do wonder if I should consider a more centrist position? When I sat down to write this commentary (without an outline ;-), I googled the topic and found no shortage of postings, and many of the arguments in support of outlining make sense. Suffice it to say that I spent a lot more time fixing Water Harvest than I did writing the first draft, and likewise my second novel ‘Guild of the Viizar’, and the third (work in process) are unstructured efforts.

So should I make another attempt to outline up-front? I can certainly understand the arguments in favor of it, but the thing is, I quite like Water Harvest, and it would most certainly not have evolved as it did if I’d insisted upon outlining it first. Some of the developments didn’t come to me until well into the book, and others even later on rewrites. How about if I outlined it first, but allowed myself to deviate from the path once in progress? That sounds OK, but would I actually deviate from my outline, or just stick to the script? Or would I ever have completed an outline in the first place?

I don’t know the one-size-fits-all answer to this question, and I’d hazard that no one else does either. I’d hazard that there is no single solution for everyone. The best advice I can fathom is that an author should go with the tactic that works best for him or her, and be eager and willing to change course when the need (or the whim?) arises.   


For more info on Eric's writing and books check out his Amazon author page.

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